Archive for January 2009
I’ve been itching to get through the first draft of this story; the itch has been made all the more unscratchable because there is still so much to do and I can’t quite envision all of it. But thinking about the itch makes me want to scratch it worse than ever; it’s that same itch you have on the underside of your forearm after you broke your arm and it’s encased in plaster from elbow to wrist: you ain’t gonna get to it any time soon, and the most you can hope for is to have your sister or best friend slide a pencil underneath the cast and try to agitate the snertchy patch of skin enough to alleviate the itch. It’s that same metaphorical itch a pregnant woman feels in the third trimester after she has wobbled around all broad-sided and bloated with that baby inside her and she can’t wait to see it, hold it, coo to it in a soft voice as she nurses and comforts it. It’s that same itch that makes me want to write a series of over-wrought metaphors that belabor the point and beat the reader over the head with it. That kind of itch.
So last night I took about an hour to outline the whole story on a dry-erase board on the wall of my office. I would call it my “studio,” but that term is so hipster stupid and high-minded that I just want to kick myself for using it casually, plus who the hell am I kidding? It’s a damn office. I go there to work.
I started with a column heading: What I Have. I delineated 17 sections of the story, quickly jotting down the contents of the section, the chronology of it, and the page numbers in the document. The longest section is 12 pages; the chronology moves from 2008 to 1972-1988, then 1989, 1990, and somewhere in there I reference things that happened in 1838.
The next column heading was “Things I’m working on.” I have 5 different sections under construction right now. I had to dig to the back of the document where I have stowed pieces and spare parts since last summer.
The last column heading was “What I need.” I scratched out 8 different things I need to work on; this list will continue to build as I think of things. Some items are major pieces or the story, some items are reminders to combine certain parts, break up certain parts, and consider rearranging other parts.
So now I can see a sketch of the whole damn thing. It’s a nice reminder of how far and how near I am from a complete draft.
Thank God for that dry-erase board. It’s one of the most valuable tools I have for writing. I’m always mapping things out on it, jotting down ideas, and sometimes writing huge important questions on it that I have to address. When I need to analyze the hell out of a poem, I usually write it out on the dry-erase board so I can look at the entire thing. I have some predilection with seeing the entirety of something. It helps me understand.
Maybe my dry-erase board needs a name.
P.S. I need to blog about something else. I’m thinking of doing a list about my cat.
Nathan Geist is currently serving as a Chaplain Assistant in the Army. He is a 2005 graduate of Zion-Benton Township High School, has studied for 3 years at Southern Illinois University, and recently appeared in the film The Promotion. Sgt. Geist will appear as a periodic contributor to The Seeker throughout the next year as he fulfills a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Focus may be the most critical aspect of my writing intellect that I have worked to develop the past few years. It’s what gets you into the work fast, what keeps you centered on the work, and what eventually leads you to the mythical “flow” that is so crucial to writing instinctively, subconsciously, and at your most premium level.
Writing doesn’t just fall out of your back pocket by accident and hit the ground as a polished gem. It takes work, patience, and dedication. But you can’t get to it, or hope to do your best work, without a good deal of focus. It takes a while to get there, and much like any great athlete or performer, you have to warm up to get your focus so you can perform your best. Reggie Miller bombed 3-pointers, practiced free-throws, and drove to the hoop on the left and right hand side to get ready for a game. Albert Pujols takes cuts off a hitting tee, takes soft-toss, and then batting practice before the game starts. I once saw a concert film of The Eagles, and the group stood in a small circle backstage, rhaposidizing “There are stars in the southern sky…” over and over before they took the stage and sang it. You have to do it; there is perhaps no athlete or artist who can pull their best performance off effortlessly without getting warmed up for it (an exception might be Joyce Carol Oates, who has probably finished two novels in the time I’ve spent on this blog). It’s like the practice that is essential to the performance; you won’t perform any better than you practice.
So, to snare my focus, I use several different approaches. One is to work out before I write (I mentioned that in episode 10). Working through puzzles like Sudoku, or the daily crossword, often help. Picturing myself writing, down to what I’m wearing and where I’m sitting, help me get started with my focus. Writing short blog entries, emails, or even text messages helps get the juices flowing. I’ve tried creating lists of 10 similes and 10 metaphors. I’ve listened to music. I’ve called friends and told them, “Hey! I’m going to do some writing right now, and this is what I’m going to write about.” If they allow me, I even tell them why and where I’m going to have problems. Then they usually hang up. What has worked the best for me has been to work through line edits in any given piece, preparing myself to get things right by correcting previous mistakes and shortcomings.
I got an idea today to try something new. One of my freshman asked if anybody had any gum. In fact, she said, “I need some gum so I can focus.” (It’s final exam week where I teach). I remarked to her that I had just read something in the paper last weekend that talked about how chewing gum helps you focus. She looked at me cock-eyed (these aren’t the types of students who read the paper). Another kid asked how gum could do that. I hypothesized that it may be the repetitive motion of the jaw and the near-constant oral stimulus activated by flavor and texture. It keeps your mind sharp by providing constant “dialogue” between your nervous center and your brain; there’s a near-constant cognitive process occurring. That was met with more cock-eyed looks.
I’m going to find out soon. I plan on doing a lot of writing this weekend, and am going to buy some gum and see what happens. I hope it’s not what always happened with gum when I was a kid and why I still don’t chew gum today: the flavor went away too fast, and it always felt like I was chewing an amorphous mass of flavorless nothing. Surely the advances in chewing gum in the last 30 years have compensated for that? I’ll see.
Sandi and I met for the first time Sunday afternoon to discuss the progress on my thesis. I’m doing better than I thought I was, and I thought I was doing pretty decent in the first place. She did a lot of line editing (cute… she claimed, “I can’t help it!” I know what she means– It has become instinctual for me to do the same thing the last few years). Her main concern was my use of “scene” throughout the writing thus far.
“Scene” is critical to literary journalism. The use of representative scenes, interspersed with digressions for research, commentary, and reflection, is how the structure of the piece is shaping up. But the representative scenes need work. I need to place people physically, provide greater details (using the five senses), and tighten them up so they move quickly and are meaningful. I have to avoid the temptation to include cutesy scenes or scenes that I just think are funny but that don’t necessarily belong. An example of that is a description of Jim and me at keg parties in college, when we used to do a maneuver we referred to as “pick and drink.” He’d use his wide body to block people off so I could cut in front of them to the keg, then I’d return the favor so we could cut the time spent in a keg line in half. Fun to talk about, fun to remember, nice to laugh about… but maybe not the best choice for the story. The amount of detail and the thought processes behind the “pick and drink” are a story unto themselves, but I’ve had to cut back on things like that because they aren’t serving the story (and in this particular case, they make us look like a couple of world-class goofballs… which we were).
It’s the “scenes” that are going to make the story meaningful and pull the reader into Jim’s life. If they aren’t handled properly, the story loses meaning and the reader begins to wonder what the hell the point is other than to reminisce about Jim and how things were in college or what we did the night we went out in Auburn and got completely shitfaced and the cops showed up at 2AM because we were wrestling in his front yard.
I have to give myself credit for managing my emotions and creative energy the last few months. Both are critical to writing effectively, and either one being off kilter can cause significant problems. Writing demands a lot of emotional investment. It requires a lot of getting into your own head and reflecting on times, places, and people in an honest way. The honesty can be painful; hell, the nostaligia alone can make you wistful and melancholy. But you have to think about these things and roll them around in your head and find a way to write about them without being sappy or maudlin while still focusing on truth. So creative energy comes into play along with the emotional recall. This can be very powerful; it can give you clarity and create meaning and understanding that you never had before. I have referred to the whole mess as “second sight.” It is one of the great benefits of writing, and one of the things that keeps me coming back.
But it’s also one of the great consequences. It’s hard to turn off all that stuff when it’s time to go to the movies or when the laptop battery runs out or your friends are coming over. Many times, it overflows into whatever you’re doing subsequent to your writing. I’ve in turn been hyperkinetic, hilarious, sullen, tempermental, exhausted… too many to name. I’ve had many a sleepless night in the past four years. So it’s important to know how to turn things off, to know where the switch is in your brain. It has taken me a long time to find it, and many times when I do find it, it changes location.
One thing I’ve done, and continue to do, is to play video games. They distract my mind, get the focus and energy elsewhere, and let me come down gently. Many times I’ve called a friend and just put it out there that I’m wiped out, and then talked about other things. Working out has worked for me many times (the reverse of this has been efficacious as well: working out and then getting into the writing). Making something in the kitchen has worked. Lately, I’ve been watching clips of The Who perform “Won’t Get Fooled Again” live at the end of The Kids Are Alright. There’s an awesome part near the close of the song when Mooney rips a drum solo, Daltrey screams “Yeeeeeaaaaahhhhhh!” and Pete Townshend launches himself a good 30 feet across the stage, sliding on his knees with his guitar slung at his side. What does it for me is the raw energy, the spectacle that results from being in the moment but so tight in fundamentals and with mastery of your instrument that you can improvise and create something greater than you had before.
But then the song is over. They rip up their instruments a little bit, take their bows, and exit. All in a days work. Now work is over. It’s time to relax and think about something else.
It’s been an unusual day.
I had big plans today to speed down to Lincolnshire and camp out at Barnes and Noble or Panera, and then write my ass off until late afternoon when I was going to take in Gran Torino and then watch some football at a sports bar in Libertyville.
All those things happened, but not quite as I expected. I’m at Caribou Coffee in Libertyville right now. It’s after 10PM.
First, I couldn’t speed anywhere because of the horrible road conditions amidst the 12″+ of snow we’ve had since yesterday morning. There must be some contest between Lake County villages to see who can hold out the longest on plowing. The roads sucked. It took me a long time to get to Lincolnshire in the first place, and then I came to find out that Barnes and Noble charges for their wifi access. I thought pay-per-surf went the way of the dinosaurs for public places like coffee shops, but I was wrong. So I slid over to Panera and set up shop. Except that it took me an insanely long amount of time to get focused on the writing (even though it was all set up for me by my work last Sunday). I got twined around email, online music, text messages, and a bowl of soup. This is nothing unusual; I usually use all that stuff on purpose to hone my focus (somehow I can do that… get focused and write efficaciously with all the distractions… it’s odd; I can’t explain it). But it wasn’t working for me today.
Before I knew it, I was looking at the clock: 4:30. My heart sunk; I was finally in flow and writing some good stuff– some instinctual, deep, well-structured stuff. I checked the movie schedule, and couldn’t have gotten to Gran Torino at a reasonable time to still see some of the football game. So I split, watched the film, and went to watch the game. The game sucked, so I thought since I have everything with me, I might as well hike down the street and re-establish myself. So I’m sitting in a coffee shop late on a Saturday trying to write. I got some decent stuff done, but wished I had gotten it done earlier.
I’ve been thinking lately about the toll this writing program has taken on me. I knew it would be staggering financially, and I’ve gotten through that like a champ. But what I didn’t know was that I would want to do my homework. I would want to work for hours on the weekends and whenever I could after school to write, rewrite, research, rewrite, write again, read, process, analyze, and rewrite. I didn’t know I would find such meaning and joy in it, so much so that it’s all I’ve wanted to do for weeks on end. So much so that I’ve forced myself to leave my laptop at home when I’ve visited family. So much so that I worked on 5 different pieces of writing on my flight to Los Angeles 2 weeks ago.
I think about whether or not relationships would have gone differently if I wasn’t so involved in all this. I think about whether or not I’ve intentionally excluded myself from something very meaningful over the last 4 years because I was involved in the program… events with friends, trips I could have taken, or even sitting around the house and doing next to nothing with or without company. I think about what my condo would look like right now if I hadn’t poured money into tuition instead of home repair and decoration.
Everything comes at a cost. I guess I’m not minding the cost of this so much. I’m happy. I’m a helluva lot smarter and a much better teacher from when I began.
I will have spent a year of my life writing this thesis when it is all said and done.
So much of writing seems to be a matter of getting myself into position to write, or to write something effective. That’s what today was. I did end up at the Gurnee Panera, and after I piddled around with some school work, I started to outline my thesis so I can get a real tight look at the structure. I know where to put the part I was griping about Friday (about the purpose for the story), but it took a good deal of analysis of structure to find its place. After that, I had to smooth the edges– both before and after the insertion– so it would fit. But the thing is, I never wrote the segment about the purpose of the story. I only laid the groundwork. It will happen later tonight or throughout the next week. Most likely throughout the next week. I could feel my focus blurring. There’s no sense in pushing it so hard right now. I can really explode next Saturday (I’m feeling the Lincolnshire Panera, or possibly the Barnes and Noble there after I burn a gift card I got for Christmas). That, and I’m really jonesing to work out as soon as I can get home.
One advantage of the intense focus that comes from writing is that sometimes great lines of writing just fall out of your head unexpectedly; effortlessly. Writers call it “experiencing flow.” I just sent off a quick email that had this line in it:
“…one totally whacked fact that I would never expect to know right off the bat.”
My poetry professor would be proud of me. I have assonance going (whacked, fact, that, bat), an internal rhyme (whacked, fact), and some cute wordplay with “whacked” and “bat.” Never mind the “right off the bat” cliche; I think I compensated for it with the wordplay.
I mailed the first chunk of my thesis to my advisor today. 32 pages.
I noted to her that one of the areas where I am having trouble is, “Getting to the point where the reader knows that I see my understanding of Jim intersecting with my career; how I see him as representative of my students and if I understand him, I’m a better teacher for my students. I guess that’s the purpose of the story, and so far it’s little more than inferred.” A funny thing about my writing processes: I know this has been a problem all along, but finally having the balls to declare it as such and at least write about it a little bit is the first step to addressing the problem. So, ever since about 3PM this afternoon, I’ve been flipping solutions around in my head. I need to rearrange some elements of the story and write a new part that will be inserted early on in the narrative that will serve to justify the whole thing. Now maybe I should write down some of those thoughts before I forget them.
As if I could forget them.
I bought two sets of special post-it notes tonight at Target. One is a set of page markers so I can tab specific pages as I read a few of the books I’m using for research. The other is a set of rather large post-it notes that I can stick on the specific pages and use to jot down notes as I’m reading. Then, I can quickly review what I wrote at some later point and at least start to piece together content based on thoughts I was having as I was reading. I usually don’t work like this. I usually sit at my computer and write as I read (and mark directly in the book; but these books aren’t mine), incorporating research as I go along. But I had a vision of myself reading in bed, on the couch, during class, whenever, and saw myself using the post-it notes to keep track of thoughts. I guess I’m following my vision. This is probably a good habit to start, which gets me back to why I chose to write this particular thesis anyhow. I knew it was going to cause some significant changes in me as a writer, both my processes and my abilities. This is but one of them.
I frequently have whacked visions regarding writing. A frequent one usually comes early in the week when I think about writing over the next weekend. For some reason, I see myself from outside myself, usually sitting at a Panera (there are about 6 Paneras that I frequent within 15 miles of my condo). But I envision myself sitting at a specific Panera. Whichever one has been dialed up in my vision is the one I have to go to the following weekend. I think I see myself at the Gurnee Panera this Sunday, though I’m not sure I’m going to write Sunday.
BTW… my thesis advisor is S.L. Wisenberg. She’s a co-director of the Northwestern writing program. Aside from the books and other stories she has published, she has written the acclaimed blog Cancer Bitch for some time now. You can find it here: http://cancerbitch.blogspot.com.